A review by Rumpus O’Malley, from somewhere in Texas
Hollywood has not been too good about showing the true history of Native Americans in movies. Not at all. It might crank out a Great White Hope movie like Dances with Wolves, where Lt. Costner leads the grateful wagon-burners to glory, that is until they ended up massacred at Wounded Knee, or worse, the featured players in a Kevin Costner movie.
Windwalker solved the Lt. Costner problem by eliminating white people entirely. Pre-Contact, meaning this was before Native Americans met the crowd of Christians who arrived to steal their land, and then expected to be thanked for it. It called the true spirit of giving. You give me your land, and I kill you in payment.
It took a filmmaker from Arkansas to outwit the Hollywood racist propaganda machine. Charles B. Pierce wanted to make a western after his success with a home grown monster movie, The Legend of Boggy Creek, and a movie about a homegrown rural industry, with The Bootleggers.
He heard the legend of the Blackfoot chieftain, Winterhawk, and decided to make a movie about the man and his times.
The time of the 1840s and the place was Montana. The only thing Winterhawk’s band of Blackfoot got from the white was a dose of smallpox. It burned through the camp, taking the lives of the dwindling band native Americans with it. Against his better judgement, he took the advise of his aged father (played by legendary Western artist Ace Powell) that the whites might have developed a cure for the dreaded disease. He loaded up pack horses with valuable furs to pay for the medicine, and with a few of his most trusted and valued braves, set off for a rendezvous of mountain men.
A rendezvous was a once a year gathering of trappers, merchants, medicine men, native Americans, con-men and sex-workers, in different locations every year in the springtime Rockies. The merchants packed in goods the trappers would need, and packed out with furs they traded for less than value, and would sell in Saint Louis.
If there was a cure to save his people, it would be there. But Winterhawk is met by a hail of gunfire, his companions murdered while he barely escaped with his life. Now, the real story begins.
The preacher at the rendezvous brought along with niece and nephew for a taste of life in the wild country and to help in Bible study of the godless mountain men. Preacher Finley’s fetching niece, played by the fetching Dawn Wells here escaped from Gilligan and his island, is bound to catch the eye of any man, and Winterhawk is no exception. His revenge raid on the whites is stopped short at the opportunity to put the grab on the girl Clayana and her younger brother, Cotton (in a convincing performance by the director’s son).
As Winterhawk is, unlike the whites, a man of honor, there is no suggestion the youngsters will be harmed. No ransom note, just an invitation to follow. If, and important IF, Preacher Finley is able.
Like many ministers of the faith, Finley has more than enough money to employ the frontiersman to take up the chase. Leif Erickson,, Elkhorn Guthrie as the leader of the posse (married to a young native American girl, stiffly played by Marlon Brando’s mouthpiece, Sacheen Littlefeather, whose character is there only to be raped and murdered by the white bad guys who began the story). Then there is Westerns veterans Denver Pyle, Woody Strode, Seamon Glass.
The baddies, L.Q. Jones, Dennis Fimple. Arthur Hunnicutt appears as a storekeeper too late to help.
Then there is Michael Dante’s stoic, restrained performance as the title character, nobility personified. Clayanna has no choice than to fall for the handsome quiet, Native American. When the public subjected to portraits of Native American leaders, it is always war chief’s like Geronimo or Crazy Horse (itself a racist European caricature of a mystical name). Like many white women, Clayanna chooses a meaningful life with Native American rather than returning to the squalid pointless world of White America in the 1840s, a world of slavery and death in vile polluted cities.
The thing that elevates this movie from being a simple revenge quest, is the stunning cinematography by James Roberson. As he was not a Hollywood insider, demands by Michael Dante and others for at the very least an Academy Award nomination for the striking images he put on the screen were loudly ignored.
Have no doubt, the Pierce/Roberson cinematic imagery had a direct influence on the ability of masters to make films like Heaven’s Gate, Dances with Wolves that own a debt to the beautiful images of Winterhawk. Be warned, there are countless images of violent death and destruction mixed in with the bleak cinematic splendor.
The views began in the summer months of Montana worked their way to the snow-clad mountains of Colorado. You can almost feel the heat and then the cold, testament to the ability of the master cameraman. Truly.
Writer Earl Smith’s words fill the motion picture frame and spill out over the viewer like a torrent of poetry to match the stunning images.